A trailblazer in a land with few paths

Almost five years ago, when Hamid Karzai asked what kind of political post might interest her, Habiba Sarabi shocked the president with her reply.

"I want to be a governor," she told him.

"That's a revolutionary idea," he said.

But Sarabi got her wish and became Afghanistan's first and only female governor. She presides over Bamian province, scenically stunning, beset by rural poverty and best known as the scene of a particularly wanton act of cultural vandalism by the Taliban: the destruction of its two ancient, giant statues of Buddha.

Sarabi believes hope can be found in the rubble. Trained as a hematologist, Sarabi fled into exile in Pakistan at the onset of Taliban rule, when she realized that she would not be able to practice her profession and that her daughter would be unable to attend school.

"I didn't want her to miss out on her education," she said.

In Pakistan, Sarabi began the human rights and educational work that she still considers her true calling. When the Taliban regime fell, she returned home and immersed herself in politics, serving in Karzai's early Cabinets.

Not everyone was willing to accept her as governor.

"There were some men who spoke out against me," she said. "They would accuse me of things, saying I had tried to preach in a mosque, making up things like this. But I kept on with my job."

Many consider the diminutive but sturdy Sarabi to be well-positioned for a Cabinet post if Karzai wins reelection.

"In Afghanistan, women have to be strong, very strong," she said.

"My mother was illiterate, but she wanted me to become educated. She died when I was 1. But she believed in me, and wanted me to succeed. I wish she could see what I have achieved."

-- Laura King

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